Uniting student leaders with approaches for critical conversations

Workshop utilizes theatre methodology for conflict resolution

03-07-19-ae-creativetools-l-mohan

Fourth-year College and Curry student Emily Schmid brings people together to start conversations through theatre methodology.

Lauren Mohan | Cavalier Daily

In an environment constantly struggling with issues of social injustice and oppression, conversation is vital. Leaders of student organizations on Grounds have struggled with how to facilitate meaningful and fair conversation in which each voice is heard, recognized and understood. Fourth-year College and Curry student Emily Schmid found a creative approach to tackle this issue — using theatre methodology in conflict resolution. Her simplistic approach of movement and interaction provides clear formulas to begin these difficult conversations.

Schmid hosted six people in a workshop at the Drama Building on Sunday March 3 titled “Creative Tools for Community Conversations” as a part of her distinguished major program thesis. She drew on her background of training from Theatre of the Oppressed — a school of techniques created by Brazilian theatre practitioner Augusto Boal — which encourage education and social change.

“I wanted to bring the methodology to student leaders at U.Va. because I believe it has a profound potential to activate social change,” Schmid said. “The goal of the workshop was to bring together people from diverse organizations to have a conversation about identity, agency and systems of oppression on Grounds.” 

Apart from the Theatre of the Oppressed methodology, Schmid also drew from the student organization Sustained Dialogue on Grounds to formulate her “agreements” for the workshop, including making sure participants “assume best intentions.”

To break the ice, students participated in a Name Gumbo. Two participants introduced themselves to each other and switch names with a handshake. Participants continued to switch names with whomever they met and used the last person’s name whom they shook hands with as their own. The activity ended in giggles and confusion, which Schmid encouraged her participants to welcome. She applied this activity to broader situations of conflict resolution, explaining that when dealing with conflict, it is beneficial to begin with confusion. In such a starting place, it is easier to set out objective facts and obtain a better understanding of the situation. 

Despite a lack of time to truly get to know each participant, Schmid’s exercises encouraged openness from the beginning of the workshop, allowing discussions to flow seamlessly. In order to achieve a sense of vulnerability, participants took part in an Identity Walk, in which they shared their thoughts and experiences in regard to their personal identity. This honesty opened participants up to share personal stories and listen to their peers with respect and interest — another necessity for creating a productive dialogue.

In the Hand of Power exercise, participants were asked to pair up and one partner was prompted to follow the other’s hand with their nose, always maintaining the same distance. After the first round, partners switched roles. Following this activity, discussion surrounded the responsibilities of both leaders and followers in a group setting. Participants shared a variety of reactions, some finding themselves feeling more in control as a follower and others realizing that in following one person, they were leading several others. At this point, Schmid prompted participants to consider how they might be able to apply this new understanding of responsibility to their involvements on Grounds. Students shared situations in which the lines of leadership were disrupted and new roles of leading or following were introduced. 

Most all of the workshop’s activities utilized movement and interaction between participants and with the space. Schmid embraced this movement, explaining that interacting with information to create embodied knowledge leads to a more comprehensive understanding of the topic. She succeeded in helping participants apply this skill to their outside involvements and leadership positions by encouraging participants to utilize these activities in their involvements on Grounds, giving each student a written explanation of each exercise to implement later. 

Moreover, the methods Schmid used to foster such an open, honest space served as an inspiration to students leaders. Taking an active role in her workshop, Schmid participated in most activities, creating a vulnerability in herself which increased participants’ ease in being vulnerable as well. While facilitating conversation with guiding questions, she welcomed others to contribute their own perspective in discussions, inviting participants to propose guidance and pose their own questions to the group. Through her workshop, Schmid gave student leaders an example of what it looks like to be a thoughtful leader — conscious of when to step in and when to back off.  

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